Islam was founded in 610AD by the prophet Muhammad, when he received his first revelations from the Angel Jibril (Gabriel) in the Cave of Hira. In Islam, he is not considered a divinity or a figure of worship, like Jesus do, but simply regarded as the Prophet of God and the Seal of the Prophets.
In this period of Islamic infancy, between 610AD and 632AD, the monotheistic religion grows, orders from God (Allah) were commanded and His prohibitions were observed. By this time as well, the prohibition from God through His prophet regarding the figural representation of humans and animals was imposed, for the fears of it might incite idolatry amongst the early believers of Islam.
Narrated Aisha: (mother of the faithful believers) I bought a cushion with pictures on it. When Allah’s Apostle saw it, he kept standing at the door and did not enter the house. I noticed the sign of disgust on his face, so I said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I repent to Allah and His Apostle . (Please let me know) what sin I have done?” Allah’s Apostle said, “What about this cushion?” I replied, “I bought it for you to sit and recline on.” Allah’s Apostle said, “The painters (i.e. owners) of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection. It will be said to them, ‘Put life in what you have created (i.e. painted).’ ” The Prophet added, “The angels do not enter a house where there are pictures. – Sahih Bukhari
Narrated ‘Aisha: The Prophet entered upon me while there was a curtain having pictures (of animals) in the house. His face got red with anger, and then he got hold of the curtain and tore it into pieces. The Prophet said, “Such people as paint these pictures will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection .”
This two Hadiths (Prophet Traditions) represent the prophet’s displease regarding the representation of human and animal forms. The painters were threatened with the promises of punishment in the afterlife. The prophet gave warning for those who painted these human or animal forms that in the Day of Resurrection, citing that God will mock them challenge them to give life to what they have reproduced, for they are mimicking the act of God creating lifeforms. He also said that any house that have paintings (and in other prophetic traditions, dogs) would not be entered by angels, whom, in Islamic faith, would bring to households and the family who live within their fortune for each day.
So with this prohibition of human and animal representation, how would an Islamic artisan utilize and express their creativity?
The Influences of Islamic Art in the Infancy of Islam –
During the time period where Islam first emerged, the empires of Sassanid, Persian, Roman and Byzantine were their neighbours. Hence, Islamic artisans took their inspirations and influenced by the neighbouring empires, until it was said that the artifacts from this Islamic period was not distinguishable to the artifacts from the other kingdoms.
Influences from these empires includes for example, the imagery of kings as a warrior and lions as a symbol of nobility and virility taken from the Sassanid Empire, and influences of Roman motifs in the pottery produced in this period.Many unglazed ceramics were produced in this period, with vegetal motifs decoration. This could be said that they get their inspirations from the Persian or Sassanid Empires. Coinage and metalwork are imported and traded with the Byzantine empire, and subsequently utilized for decoration as well as inspiration for their own creations.
Absorbing the influences and creating their own
With the influences from the neighbouring empires, it is not easy to distinguish their artifacts from those produced by their contraries. However, by time, with the assimilation and amalgamation of these artistic cultures, the Islamic artisans have created, even though still a shadow of their counterparts, their unique interpretation and creation of their own artistic creativity.Their creations are very simple and not full of decoration, showing that the artisans are still trying to perfect their artworks.
The Muslim artisans utilized the vegetal and floral pattern on small, every day items such as ewer, plates and generally ceramics, since decoration on building is still basically non-existant (The first mosque built by the prophet is no more but with pillars of palm trunks and roofs of date-palm leaves). Even though the Hadith regarding the humanoid and animal imagery were given in this time period, there are still some examples of animal forms in pottery. The ceramics were also decorated with calligraphy done in the Kufic style – the same style used for the writing of Quran manuscripts.
Metalworks are also being developed back then, using techniques and artforms used by the Sassanid empire. Many of the metalwork produced have typical Sassanid silhouette, and have the similar decorative motifs.
A spouted ewer with epigraph “Drink from it
ﺃﺸﺮﺐ ﻓﻴﻬﺄ / May it be to your health”
Pictures courtesy of – http://www.lacma.org/islamic_art/eia.htm